Prototype of your invention

In this article I am going to explain to you the first steps towards building a prototype of your invention.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is a physical representation of your product idea. It can be a very simple model made of cardboard or a very sophisticated one made almost identical to a real product by using advanced technologies.

A prototype it is commonly used to have a feel of the appearance and dimensions of the product, or to test how it works or both. It is aimed to be a testing sample to validate your design or to show to potential clients or investors for feedback. But it is rarely intended to be a final product that you would sell to customers.

Prototype samples of a photography camera

Which prototype option is the right for you?

To build the right prototype you need to know what you are trying to achieve with it. These are the different types of prototypes from simple and quick to complex:

  • Mock-up — Basic prototype made with easily available materials such as cardboard, foam or wood. It is used to quickly check the look and basic functionality of the product.
  • “Looks-like” prototype — Aims to represent the aesthetics and dimensions of the product without detailing any internals mechanism and/or electronics.
  • “Works-like” prototype — Focuses on testing how the product works, mechanically and/or electronically without any aesthetic consideration. Development boards, such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, can be used for electronics prototyping.
  • Functional prototype — This type of prototype is a combination of both, aesthetics and functionality of the product and it resembles quite a lot to the final product that will be manufactured. It is used only when the product is more mature.
Mock-up sample
“Looks-like” prototype of a photography camera

How do you start your prototype?

We will focus on the “looks-like” prototype which is usually the prototype made to assess the product appeal and can be shown to potential customers and investors early on.

The first thing you need is to make a 3D model of your idea. That means converting your handmade sketch or initial mock-up into a digital format that can be visualized, modified and sent to different parties. This is done by using, what is called, a CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. There are plenty of CAD software options available, some free and simple to use (FreeCAD), some more complex and expensive (Rhino, SolidWorks, Onshape). If you want to learn how to use these tools there are plenty of online courses to get yourself going, but bear in mind that it can take you some time to master.

For a “looks-like” prototype, the most important is to design a 3D model that represents the main aesthetics of the product, the outer shape and size. There is no need at this point to go in detail of how the product looks or functions internally; it can be just an empty shell for the purpose of this prototype.

Designing your product on a CAD software

How can I design my idea?

Making a digital 3D model of your product is not trivial, although you can definitely learn how to use the tools to produce a model. However you may not have the time or interest to do so, then a better approach is to find some expert freelancer to do the job. The kind of freelancer that can help you with the modeling of your product is either an Industrial Designer or a Mechanical Engineer.

Where to find a freelancer? You can use any personal contacts on your own network with those skills, but if you don’t know anyone, there are plenty of websites to find freelancers (Fiverr or Upwork). There are cheap options on those websites to do the job but beware of the quality of work and communication challenges. You may want to check their reviews and previous work to make sure it is a good fit, and it is recommendable that you have a first skype interview to get to know who you are working with.

Prepare a quick brief with the details of your design, such as a first sketch or drawing, or mock-up photos if you have. Any additional information that you can provide is beneficial, such as colors and finishes, instructions on how any mechanism or particular feature should move or function.

Finally, agree on a price, a specific deadline and how many iterations would they offer (it is common to have to go back and forth a few times on the design and some freelancers may charge each iteration as additional work).

Define your prototype requirements to freelancers

Which prototyping option should you choose?

Once you have a 3D model of your product, you are ready to build your “looks-like” prototype. 3D printing is nowadays probably the quicker and cheapest way to build your prototype. 3D printing consists in physically printing layer by layer a 3D object based on a digital 3D model. The digital file needs to be in a specific format (.stl format) which is a standard format created for these applications, this file can be easily created from the digital 3D model of the product previously made. The 3D printers create objects mainly made of plastic materials so you can expect that sort of quality and feel (in recent years metal 3D printing has started to take off, as well as other biomedical and food applications that won’t be covered in this article).

These are the main types of 3D printing technologies:

  • FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) — This is the cheapest option but the accuracy of the model, as well as the strength of the object is low. It can also be used with different colors. This option is mainly used for cosmetic prototypes.
  • SLA (Stereolithography) — This technology can print objects with very accurate details and smooth surface finish. It has great versatility with a great number of materials that can be printed including rubber like materials. SLA parts can get quite close to the appearance of a commercial product.
  • SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) — Probably the most expensive option. It can print objects with excellent strength and accuracy but the aesthetics and finish is not as good as SLA printing. Good for applications where mechanical strength is crucial.
FDM prototype samples

Where to have my prototype made?

For the purpose of our “looks-like” prototype, in most cases, FDM printing process mentioned previously would be sufficient. So, the next step is to find a 3D printer, either you own one already, or you have access to one from your own network, or maybe you can purchase one (Formalabs or MakerBot).

Alternatively you can find external prototyping services such as prototype suppliers in your area; also some workshops or makerspaces offer these services as well. Additionally, there are a growing number of on-demand 3D printing services online such as Sculpteo or Materialise.

Get a quote from any of the above options and a lead time by sending them your 3D model file (in .stl format) and you just need to wait for the parts to arrive to you. Remember to inspect the parts properly once arrived to make sure they are not damaged or deformed which can happen during transportation.

3D printing machine

What should I do now with my prototype?

Now that you have your 3D printed parts (or on its way to you), you should make sure that you have all the additional bits and pieces required to assemble your prototype. These could be screws, springs, adhesive or any other items required. All of this could be easily purchased at any hardware store around you.

Once you have all the components, you can start assembling the prototype. You can still use an external supplier to do this for you but unless it is a complex product you might want to give at try, nonetheless you know better than anybody how the product works.

Now you have your product idea in your hands. How does it feel? Well, don’t relax just yet, probably the most important step starts once you have the prototype. This is the time to go out and share the prototype with your potential customers to get feedback and improve your design. You can use some online services to get feedback from users, such as SurveyMonkey. You may also want to show it to investors or use it to create a successful crowdfunding campaign (Kickstarter or Indiegogo).

Testing your prototype samples

That summarizes the main steps towards building your initial prototype.

Good luck with your prototype and remember to get in touch if you need any additional help!